As Oxford University and Imperial College London move into poll position in the race to develop an anti-Covid vaccine, the UK’s first dedicated Vaccines Manufacturing Innovation Centre is preparing to turn their results into millions of doses to be distributed across the world, HELEN COMPSON reports.

VMIC was already in the offing well before the outbreak of this pandemic, the need for both innovative vaccine manufacturing processes and a beefed up emergency response capability in the face of emerging infectious diseases having long since been recognised.

The building work on its 7,000m2 state-of-the-art headquarters on Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire began in April, funded by a £65m grant from UK Research and Innovation, part and parcel of the Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

But when Covid broke, the Government awarded another £131m to VMIC – £93m of it to fast track the build and expand the production capabilities at Harwell.

The manufacturing capacity has now been ramped up so that 70million vaccine doses can be produced within four to six months of its planned opening in 2021, a twenty-fold increase on the original figure.

The other £38m was awarded for the immediate creation of ‘Virtual VMIC’, a temporary vehicle that has allowed the man at the wheel, Dr Matthew Duchars, to get on the road – setting up the collaborative partnerships, hiring the skilled staff and renting the temporary laboratories it needs while the building at Harwell goes on.

Announcing the launch of Virtual VMIC in May, Business Secretary Alok Sharma said: “As the biggest contributor to the international coalition to find a vaccine, the UK is leading the global response.

“Once a breakthrough is made, we need to be ready to manufacture a vaccine by the millions.”

In an interview with Bioscience Today, VMIC chief executive Dr Matthew Duchars praised the Government’s approach to improving the UK’s EID response capability generally and, specifically, for granting a funding package of £42.3m to cover Oxford University and Imperial College London’s clinical trials.

“Funding both is quite sensible,” he said, “because you need several horses in the race. We now have two front-runner vaccines that are going down different routes and using different technologies, but ultimately answering the same problem.

“You need to have multiple vaccine candidates that are all being progressed simultaneously to give us more shots at the goal of producing a vaccine that is appropriate and safe to use.”

The science behind the two main contenders hinges on recreating the ‘spike’ proteins found on the surface of the COVID-19 virus.

Both are attempting to mimic the effect of these spike proteins, the means by which the virus attaches itself to and enters healthy cells. The difference between them though is how they will achieve this.

ICL’s vaccine is based on ribonucleic acid (RNA) which, when injected, will deliver the genetic instructions to muscle cells to make the spike protein.

Meanwhile Oxford University, working in tandem with AstraZeneca, is using an adenovirus – the type of virus that causes the common cold – taken from chimpanzees and genetically modified so it isn’t harmful to humans.

Its vaccine AZD1222 (originally called ChAdOx1 nCov-19), actually contains the genetic material used to make the spike proteins.

The aim of both types of vaccine is the same, to prime the body’s immune system to recognise and fight off the real disease should it arrive.

VMIC is playing a key role in the Oxford University consortium being led by the Jenner Institute, while at the same time working around the clock on the age-old problems behind scaling-up vaccine production.

Dr Duchars said: “VMIC has been asked by the Government to look at ways of bringing forward large-scale manufacture of a vaccine not just for Britain, but for the globe – we are talking about tens of millions of doses.

“Oxford has gone for the spike protein that your body will recognise, so we are looking at making large amounts of that viral vector to put into people and scaling that up is quite a challenge.

“It needs to be made on a much larger scale than is usually done in a laboratory and as you grow more virus, something else might grow as well that either causes contamination or stops the protein of interest being produced.

“The really challenging part of making these types of vaccines is that they not only have to be safe and efficacious, but you have to be able to guarantee every single dose is pure, whether you’re talking about one dose, a million doses or ten million doses.”

The only facility of its type in Europe with Government funding, VMIC is a reservoir of expertise designed to lubricate the pathway from vaccine discovery to commercial production.

Its remit is far wider than Covid, of course. The team is already in talks with a number of potential collaborators interested in developing several different types of vaccine.

Indeed, while the agreement VMIC signed with Oxford Biomedica last week begins with AZD1222, it signalled the start of five-year partnership that will focus on improving the scaled-up manufacture of viral vector based vaccines generally.

“Part of the design of VMIC has been to make its technology ‘agnostic’,” he said. “We aren’t here to use one type of technology.

“We have made sure that our people are able to turn their hands to different approaches, whatever type of viral vector vaccine or anti-virus is required.”

It would be the first of many such partnerships designed to help take the industry forward as a whole and to improve the UK’s standing in terms of commercialising vaccines.

“The UK has a very good track record of discovery and development and being very innovative in that area,” he said.

“But it doesn’t have a terribly good track record when it comes to scaling up and commercialising these vaccines – early candidates have often been taken abroad for commercialisation.

“We need to turn that around and bring the process back home, so that the UK can be regarded as a key centre for the overall development of vaccines.

“The more we can encourage vaccine developers to come from outside to do their work in the UK, the more VMIC will be regarded as a success.”